Need a Back-to-School Laptop?

    Hello everyone, long time; no write.  I have my reasons (20,000 of them actually, but I’m about halfway through - thanks to everyone who filled in a questionnaire or volunteered for an interview!) but I absolutely had to get this post out before school started again because I think it’s going to be relevant to a lot of people.


tldr


If your child needs a laptop for school, you should read this whole thing.

If you’re all sorted computer-wise, these are not the droids you’re looking for; enjoy the rest of your day.

I have not been sponsored for this post.



    With the giddy uncertainty of COVID-19 making the news of whether or not we’ll return to school feel like waiting for a crush to text us back, many people are steeling themselves for a second bout of distanced, online learning.  And wasn’t it tons of fun the first time round!  The problems that arose during the final two-thirds of the school year were partly to do with families suddenly having to share digital resources.  Ignoring the fact that one in ten households in the UK still do not have regular access to the internet (ons.gov.uk), and putting aside that some families can only access the internet through a phone, the fact that some families have only one computer made learning harder than it needed to be.


    Case and point, my wife was telling me about a colleague with two children, both school age.  During the lockdown, they both needed access to their online classes.  On top of this, his wife needed to communicate with her boss and he needed to access his lab remotely to continue his research paper.  The problem?  Only one laptop.


    This is not a unique situation by any means.  Many families would benefit from second, third or even one-to-one devices but this can be prohibitively expensive.  Especially when you consider the product licences for productivity suites like Microsoft Office, and virus protection.  And let’s not even think about the minefield that is SSD sizes, RAM, Memory…  


If only there were an easier solution…


    What if I told you, there was?  What if I told you, you could buy a brand new laptop that was more than capable and it would cost you less than £200?  What if I told you, there was a laptop out there that was so simple, a child could use it and you would never, ever have to worry about virus protection or license costs?


Ever heard of a Chromebook?


    I’m guessing that roughly a third of you have just stopped reading, and that’s fine.  You do you.  But for those of you who remain, I would like to share the single best solution for needing more devices in your family.


    Chromebooks are laptop computers that run ChromeOS.  That means that they don’t run Windows, like a PC, and they don’t run MacOS, like a Mac.  ChromeOS is a stripped-down operating system which relies mostly on cloud computing.  This means that almost everything is accomplished using Google’s servers around the world.


So, what?  I can only use it online?

    No.  Chromebooks come with internal storage.  Admittedly it’s not much (although some now ship with up to 128gb) but it is enough for school work, and that’s what I’m pushing here.  You can use your Chromebook to type up an essay or create a project even when you don’t have any internet connection at all.  The beauty of it is, when you do have an internet connection, your work will be automatically saved and updated to your Google account.


So I can use Word?

    You can (there’s an app and an online version that’ll run just fine) but why would you?  Google has its very own productivity suite with a word processor (Google Docs), spreadsheet (Google Sheets), presentation (Google Slides) and publication (Google Drawings) programmes.  Each of these is completely FREE.  There isn’t even a one-time licensing fee.  It’s free.  And you never have to worry about saving your work because it is saved automatically EVERY FIVE SECONDS.  Wait though, what if you want to go back to a previous version?  Not a problem.  You can access and restore from every single one of those save points.


But my kid's school uses Word, so...

    That's fine. Google Docs will open up a Word document just fine. It will even transfer over comments made on a Word document. It will even download a Google Doc as a Word document. Everybody wins!


What about PowerPoint?  My kids have to do do a lot with PowerPoint.

    That would be where Google Slides comes in.  The same applies as far as saving work and restoring previous versions is concerned.  Also, because it’s a Google product, you can add YouTube videos to your slides with a simple click and drag.  You can also publish your work directly to the web.  


My children have a group project they have to do, so…

    Google Docs (and slides, sheets, drawings etc.) allow realtime collaborative work.  Simply share the document with your child’s partner and they can both be working away together.  Same document.  Same time.  The other child doesn’t even need a Chromebook - they can access the document online.


Oh yeah…

    And you don’t have to worry about saving your work to a memory stick or emailing it to yourself or even remembering to put it into Dropbox.  You can access your documents anywhere that you can access your Google account.  It’s as easy as drive.google.com into a web browser (that will probably be Chrome, let’s face it).  That means that your child now has their own, personal device, with all of their work, internet bookmarks, purchases, everything, anywhere in the world.  


My kids want to play games as well.

    Chromebooks have you covered.  Most of them run Android apps from the Google Play store, meaning that any game your child would be able to play on a phone, they can play on their Chromebook.  Mobile games not your thing?  Google now has Stadia (which, admittedly can carry an extra cost), which runs on Chromebooks and is essentially an X-Box or Playstation that runs via the internet (I’ve been playing Tomb Raider on mine; my wife has dabbled with Red Dead Redemption II).


You said it was less than £200?

    You can pick up a decent Chromebook for around £150.  There are some out there that are even cheaper, but beware - less does not always mean more.


Here’s what you need to look for to make sure you’re getting the good stuff:


You’ll want at least 4gb of RAM.  

    RAM is like the computer’s stamina.  If you want to do lots of things at once, then you need RAM.  Some newer Chromebooks come with 8gb RAM but 4 should be fine for schoolwork, web browsing and YouTube videos.


Processor type

    Thanks to Robbie Payne of chromeunboxed.com for this one.  Processors are the brains of the machine.  You’re looking for an N4…..  It doesn’t matter what comes after the ‘N4’, just make sure there’s a 4 as this indicates a newer processor.  Some unscrupulous resellers advertise older machines (not just Chromebooks) under 2019 or 2020 dates.  Check that processor.


Internal Memory

    Chromebooks don’t need a lot of internal memory because nothing is ever installed onto them (more on that later).  However, remember what I said that they work offline?  Well, this is why you need some local storage.  Luckily, for basic schoolwork, anything above 16gb should be fine.  Plus, many Chromebooks ship with expandable memory via an SD card slot.  I used this to boost my internal memory by 128gb - lots of Netflix downloads!


There are other things like speaker volume and screen clarity but honestly, if it is mostly a device for schoolwork and playing around then these aren’t so important.  


Before I go, a few case studies…


    I’ve been a professional, full-time teacher for over a decade and for seven of those ten years, I’ve used a Chromebook.  I bought my first one because I needed something after my Windows laptop died.  I had a student teacher in my class and she showed me hers.  I was so impressed at the simplicity and functionality (and the 12-second boot-up time.  That’s completely off to me typing away in just 12 seconds) I bought myself one during the lunch break.


    Then I bought one for my mother - a lovely old lady who frequently finds herself battling with technology.  She loved it.  It was so simple.  Everything just worked.  And, thanks to Google’s remote access (again, free and simple to use), if she does have a question about something, I can help her by accessing her screen from 400 miles away.  


    The combined cost of both Chromebooks was less than the price of a single Windows machine.


    Then I bought one for my wife who was doing an MA at the time.  She had been an Apple user for years and years but wanted something lightweight and not-too-precious for a six-month lab placement in Texas.   Three weeks into the placement and halfway through her dissertation, the Chromebook fell off the table and broke.  Not a problem.  She ordered a replacement and continued on as if nothing had happened.  None of her work had been lost, despite never stopping to save.  And the pain of having to buy a replacement?  So much easier when it costs around a fifth of a Macbook!


    Finally, I had a Year 6 child who was a very prolific writer and desperately wanted a laptop for her birthday.  Her parents asked me for some advice on cheap, second-hand Windows laptops because they would likely have to get two (she had a sister).  I recommended a Chromebook; showed them mine (I was still using it for school work); and they were delighted to be able to buy two brand new Chromebooks (different models - the Year 6 ended up with a 360 model that doubled as a tablet) for, again, and I sound like a broken record here, less than the price of a single Windows machine.


Limitations

    There are a couple.  If you are planning on doing a lot of video editing...  Don’t get a Chromebook.  If your child is embarking on a digital photography course and needs to use specific programmes like Photoshop… don’t get a Chromebook.  You can’t install standalone programmes like that.  You can download a WebApp version or an Android App, but these are not going to give you the same level of professionalism as a dedicate programme.  Likewise, if your child wants to do a lot of high-end gaming… don’t get a Chromebook.  Even with Stadia access, they’ll likely end up disappointed.  


But…


If you or your child need an additional laptop to do:

  • Basic school work
  • Web browsing
  • Light gaming
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • Video conferencing
  • Remote schooling
  • Printing
  • Drawing
  • Light photo and video editing
  • YouTube / Netflix / Prime / Disney+ streaming
  • Use the laptop for the entire day without needing to charge it

Get a Chromebook. 


Don’t just my word for it, here’s what Which? had to say:


Chromebooks don’t slow down over time because software and files aren’t stored on the device.

When you buy a brand-new Chromebook, Google will offer you 100GB of free Google Drive storage, which will be applied to your Google account for life.

They feel faster than equivalent Windows laptops

They have great battery life


Thanks for reading this far.  I genuinely stand by Chromebooks.  As I said, I've used them professionally for years and I have completed my MA using nothing but a Chromebook (a PixelbookGo, if you're interested).  If you have any questions or want more information, you can reach me in the places listed below.

Stay safe, wash your hands (still), wear a mask, hope for the old normal to return!

Carl Headley-Morris

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